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Idowu, the ‘Owerri boy’ that was destined to be a footballer

By Christian Okpara, St. Petersburg, Russia
14 July 2018   |   4:16 am
What do you make of a two-year old boy, who instead of sleeping by 4.00 a.m., crawls out of his crib to join his father in watching Nigeria pummel Bulgaria at the USA ’94 World Cup?

Bryan with the trophy won as a young player

What do you make of a two-year old boy, who instead of sleeping by 4.00 a.m., crawls out of his crib to join his father in watching Nigeria pummel Bulgaria at the USA ’94 World Cup?

That was the dilemma faced by Mr. Sunday Oyeyemi Idowu of Kajola Local Council of Oyo State during the USA ’94 World Cup.

Mr. Idowu, resident in St. Petersburg, where he studied architecture, was among millions of Nigerians following the country’s impressive performance in its first appearance at the FIFA World Cup being held in the United States of America.

As so many parents would do, he had tucked in his two-year-old son, Bryan, to bed and retired to his sitting room to watch Nigeria’s opening match against Bulgaria.

In the course of the game, he could not contain himself following the impressive way the Super Eagles were playing. And when the late Rashidi Yekini scored Nigeria’s opening goal, he yelled so hard that even his wife, Ijeoma, woke up to find out if all was well with her husband.

Shortly after Daniel Amokachi’s second goal for Nigeria in the game, he saw his son, who was supposed to be sleeping, tugging his trousers and yelling in his childish voice and mimicking his father.

“Bryan was two years old then and the difference in time meant the games were played in the early hours of the morning. I wanted to take him back to sleep, but he cried so loud that I allowed him to sit with me even at that hour. May be that was where he picked his likeness for the sport,” the older Idowu said.

According to him, Bryan started showing signs that he would take to football when he was a toddler and has grown to become what Nigerians saw at the Russia 2018 World Cup.

“Bryan was born here in 1992. His mother is half Russian, half Nigerian. Her father is from Nkume in Orlu, Imo State. She came here to study medicine and had to go back to Nigeria after three years to write some compulsory exams and complete every other procedure. Bryan was three years old then and had to leave with her mother to Owerri, where she did her housemanship. That is why Bryan always says Owerri was his first home in Nigeria. My in-laws took care of him for the first three years of his life. My wife’s name is Mabel Ijeoma Idowu; their family name is Udujih.

“I am from Ilero in Kajola Local Council of Oyo State and the good thing about Nkume and Ilero is that the two towns have never produced anybody that played for the national team. So, it is a great thing for me and my wife that we are the first to produce a national team player for the two teams.”

When Bryan was six years old, Idowu brought him back to Russia to continue his education because, according to him, “I felt the quality of education was better in Russia than Nigeria. He was in Owerri from age three to six. His mother was still in Nigeria doing her youth service in Jigawa State.

Bryan’s parents, Sunday and Ijeoma Idowu

“While in school, I registered him in an academy to ensure he did not join any bad group. The school system is one that ends by 4.00 o’clock and from then the child has free time. I wanted him to occupy himself away from bad influences so that was why I registered him in the academy. But I made sure that he paid attention to his books. When I took him to the academy he was the only black there, but he did well. His mother ensured that he studied his books and today he has a Masters’ degree in Marketing.”

At the football academy is St. Petersburg, Bryan did so well that scouts from the city’s biggest club, Zenith St. Petersburg, came to take him to their own academy. At Zenith, Bryan was made captain of the youth teams at different levels from Under-11 to Under-15, but the club, which had not had any black player in its senior roster since inception, refused to promote him to the main team when he became ripe for professional football. So, Bryan had to take his skills to another team, Amkar Perm, which is based in the city of Perm.

Even while at Zenith St. Petersburg, he was also a mainstay in Russian youth set up, but never made it to the senior national team. According to Mr. Idowu, “the Russians took him in their under-14 up to u-18 teams, but when it got to the senior level they stopped inviting him. He was disappointed at first, but I told him that he is a Nigerian and should think of playing for Nigeria.

“It was a pleasant surprise to us when he was invited to play for Nigeria. You know, he doesn’t speak Igbo or Yoruba and he did not know anybody in Nigerian football except Fegor Ogude, who was with him in Amkar, a Russian premier league club. Ogude won the Nations Cup with Nigeria and is very popular in Amkar.

Bryan Idowu during his youthful days at the academy

“Bryan called to inform me about the Nigerian coach’s interest in him. He wanted to find out if it was right to play for Nigeria and I told him to go ahead and give the coach his phone number. It was my dream for him to play for Nigeria, because the opportunities were not the same for a Russian and a foreigner in the Russian national team. They will always give the opportunity to the Russian if they are of the same standard.”

Opting to play for Nigeria posed some problem for Bryan because his Russian employers did not take kindly to that decision. Even though they did not give him the opportunity to play for the senior Russian team, they still did not want to lose him to another country. And playing for Nigeria automatically made him a foreigner even when he held the Russian passport.

“Initially there was a problem in his club because there is a number of foreigners allowed to play for each club and the club wanted to use that clause to stop him from playing for Nigeria. They threatened to sack him if he played for Nigeria. That was when I called the Super Eagles’ coach to tell him the problems and asked him to allow Bryan to gain more experience with Amkar before joining the Super Eagles. That was why they did not call him for all the qualifying matches.

“I was skeptical when they invited him to play against Argentina, because I saw it as a tough way to begin in the national team. To play against Messi, Aguero, Mascherano, Di Maria and all the big players, I thought he would fail the test. But he banished that thought with his performance. He even scored a goal. What impressed us most was the unity in the Super Eagles. The players accepted him as one of them. After the game he told me that he would no longer wait to play for Russia.”

Faith also dealt a kind hand to Bryan shortly before the World Cup when Amkar Perm was declared bankrupt and out of the Russian league. That meant that Bryan was now a free agent and could take up all the offers that have come his way since he started playing for Nigeria.

“A lot of clubs in Russia and other parts of Europe want to sign him, but his agent is studying the offers. We want him to make the best decision because this is a crucial period in his career. He is training with a club in Moscow, but he has not signed for any now,” he said.